Cost of the vendetta
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, if you happen to walk on the shores of Bebek and Rumelihisarı in Istanbul, three of the four young people that you bump into will most likely be speaking Arabic as their native language. And they will not be from Qatar or Kuwait. They are the wealthy Syrians who are in exile in Istanbul. Unlike their poor and very uneducated compatriots that are suffering deeply in the other parts of Istanbul, these well-to-do young Syrians give you the feeling that they have no worries about their land being occupied by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or being destroyed by the Bashar al-Assad regime. It is also a financial miracle that they live in Istanbul without working at all.
When the first signs of the Syrian crisis emerged three years ago, then-Gaziantep Mayor Dr. Asım Güzelbey called Ahmet Davutoğlu, the former foreign minister, to warn about the possible costs of the war.
“Unfortunately, nobody in the ministry seemed to care,” Güzelbey told me. Now after thousands of people have died, the cost is too much to bear for any neighboring country.
The Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) latest economic report on the Syrian crisis shows a dark future for the nation. According to unofficial figures, about 2 million Syrians are living inside Turkish borders and that is more than the population of 70 of Turkey’s cities. About half a million Syrian guests living in Turkey are of school age, but only about 175,000 of them are able to get a proper education. Turkey’s cities are not equipped to host such a big crowd. The CHP warns of a “lost generation of Syrians” who will not find peace in Turkey either.
There is an even bigger price tag for the Turkish economy. According to the opposition party’s economic report, between the years of 2011 and 2014, Turkey’s exports suffered a colossal 6 billion-dollar loss simply because of the war in Syria. Adding the Iraqi turmoil to the balance sheet brings Turkey’s losses to almost 9.6 billion dollars. Adana and Gaziantep, once the regional hubs of trade and shining cities of tourism, are the biggest losers of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vendetta against the al-Assad family.
If you include the tourism revenues that are lost, the economic nightmare becomes something like 17 billion dollars, and this is all due to Ankara’s decisions. Previously, Turkey suffered from regional crises like the Iraqi wars and had made this issue a bargaining chip against its allies like the United States. Now the burden is on Justice and Development Party (AK Party) policies that have pushed the economy over the edge.
Luckily, Turkish society as a whole understands the trouble to the south of its border and shows very little xenophobia, even though they are vocally uncomfortable with the presence of Syrian guests, especially in border towns.
One journalist who works closely with a Qatari-based news channel said that even hoteliers in Istanbul, who have been enjoying how the Turkish Foreign Ministry pays the bills of Syrians, are now complaining about it.
“These groups are occupying entire hotels and the Turkish government needs to protect them against other Syrian groups and al-Assad’s intelligence,” he said. He also added that Turkey employs hundreds of plainclothes officers simply to watch over these groups.
So what can be done? The CHP suggests that Syrian guests will be here to stay for a long time and that Ankara has to take necessary measures. Giving agricultural subsidies in border towns, investing more in health and education services and providing decent housing for our neighbors may be a good starting point.
But then comes the 50 million-dollar question. Who is going to pay for it?